4.10 Taking Responsibility

We know that not only the prophets like David and Nathan sinned and erred, but also often the Apostles like St. Peter sinned and erred. And the Holy Church itself must pray daily, “Forgive us our sins . . .”

—Martin Luther [1533]

For an organization to address problems with its doctrines or practices, it first needs to recognize that such problems can even exist. That’s not possible if the organization views itself as inerrant and above reproach, which is the attitude we’ve seen expressed all too clearly in 4.2.6, 4.4.4, and 4.8.1. An authoritarian mindset (see “Authoritarianism” in 4.6.1) among leaders and followers alike helps maintain the attitude and keeps people from expressing concerns even within the confines of the group.

Taking such concerns outside, to raise the eyebrows of the scornful unbelieving world, is practically unthinkable. During the height of the “caretaking meetings,” when word was getting out about the spiritual abuse going on in the SRK, these warnings made that clear:

“Let us not take one another’s faults outside the kingdom of God to be trampled under the feet of unbelievers. Soon they will trample the entire kingdom of God, and trample every holy thing under their feet like swine, and even tear the bearer of tales like a dog” (Saari 1968, 14).

“The faults of the children of God should not be aired or talked about among unbelievers. It is the casting of pearls before swine, belittling of God’s children within earshot of unbelievers. This is in effect a boomerang when consequently the unbelievers in turn berate the children of God. With this trampling, the one who spoke evil is trampled too” (Päivämies, 1974).

In the past couple of years, two major issues concerning the SRK have drawn the attention of Finnish society. One is child sexual abuse by persons having positions of trust within the SRK and the response to the problem by the SRK’s leadership. The other is an increase in attention being paid to the spiritual abuse of the 1970s.

4.10.1 Child Sexual Abuse

The Christian’s obedience to the church must . . . take the form of obedience to Christ. But these two can be different. It can happen that, for the sake of obeying Christ, we must refuse to obey the church.

–Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther

The Whistleblower

Dr. Johanna Hurtig is “an expert in child care issues” who learned about “child abuse hidden inside the Conservative Laestadian Movement” from a colleague at the University of Lapland. Her colleague had

interviewed incest victims in the early part of the past decade. She asked me what it means that some of the victims said that they had achieved reconciliation with the perpetrator in the name of Jesus and through His blood. I recognized the words of atonement from the Gospel, and said that it required obedience to the law, and not turning a blind eye to crime. However, I did not think at the time that the problem would have been so extensive. [Vähäsarja 2011]

Hurtig began her approach to the SRK with a letter to Aimo Hautamäki, who was its secretary-general at the time, in August 2008. In the letter, she

dealt with the base knowledge, awareness, and readiness in respect to child sexual abuse. As my hypothesis I said that readiness and understanding of the issue is not what it ought to be. I justified my view with examples. The letter was long, about 3-4 pages. I wrote it carefully, and my opinion is still that it was appropriate in style, even prophetic concerning the situation where we are now.1

She received no reply. In October, she found out about the rape of a girl who is a relative of hers. In that case, “the forgiveness of sins played a central role.” The story of the girl outraged her all the more because it was a result of the problem she had tried to tell the SRK about, a warning she says they hadn’t heeded. Hurtig told her father that if he couldn’t get a meeting with the leaders arranged, she would go to the SRK offices and wait a week there until they would listen.

Her first meeting with the SRK came a month later, in November of 2008. She said it was conducted appropriately, and the issue was discussed. The chairman of the SRK’s board of trustees, Olavi Voittonen, acted as the chairman of the meeting and behaved somewhat like an outsider, she said, not offering his own opinion about anything. Hurtig remained “very confident,” thinking “that those men understand the seriousness of the matter and will act to tackle it in the future, when faced with this phenomenon.”

In the beginning of 2009, a man from a family she knows was arrested for child sexual abuse and given an eight-year sentence. Tuomas Hänninen, who has since replaced Hautamäki as SRK secretary-general, gave a presentation in which he spoke about the issue in a way that she felt was neither accurate nor indicated at all that the leadership had any growing awareness of the issue. He pointed out “that although we are horrified by the idea that a devout father of a family would have abused his own child, it is a sin that is not any worse than what each of us are ready to commit in our own hearts.” Dr. Hurtig felt such talk to be a “dangerous normalization” (Vähäsarja 2011) of abuse and contacted the leaders again with a letter telling of her disappointment about the lack of action. She included an action plan of “what should be taken into account at camps, in the local congregations, what should be told to and talked about with families.”

They agreed on another meeting, which took place in May 2009. She spoke “very frankly” there, criticizing Hänninen’s presentation and incorrect attitudes. She told the SRK board that she was “disappointed about their slow actions in the issue,” but behaved professionally about it. The leadership rebuked her with strong words, however. She said they called her “an overgrown, fat sheep, unprofessional, in a false spirit,” and said she didn’t have their trust.2

Then Hurtig found out that several Conservative Laestadian men were receiving long prison sentences during 2009. She decided not to let the issue rest. Rather than take any further action through the SRK, she contacted the leadership of the state-run Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, in which the SRK operates as a revival movement. She met with its highest official, the Archbishop of Turku, twice in the fall of 2009.

Bishops of the state Church issued a statement in January 2010, at which point the public became aware of the issue. Hurtig gave many interviews and was contacted by people telling her about their own experiences. She obtained more information very quickly, and decided to begin research.

She met with SRK leaders again in May 2010, and the atmosphere was tense. Voittonen and Hautamäki were angry, she says. “The men are just interested in why I don’t trust them, and I’m accused of both the mistrust they feel I have against them and the mistrust they have in me.”

Out in the Open

Then, in April 2011, the story broke wide open in the Finnish media. An article entitled “Shedding light on child abuse among the Laestadians” in the Helsingin Sanomat began as follows:

As many as 100 abusers within the Conservative Laestadian revival movement are believed to have violated the sexual integrity of children over a period of about four decades. The figures came out a week ago when the Central Committee of Conservative Laestadian Congregations (SRK) reported on results of an internal investigation. The leadership expressed regret over the inability to recognize or to adequately deal with the cases within the movement. Instead of reporting cases to the police, the focus has been on forgiveness of sins, and keeping the victims quiet. [Vähäsarja 2011]

The SRK held a press conference on April 7 to address the issue. Matti Taskila, the SRK’s vice-chairman began by saying, “Everything that we have been accused of is true.”3 I had an opportunity to discuss the issue with Taskila on July 27, 2011, and asked him about that statement. He said he had been referring to the SRK’s internal report, and the media tried to make his statement mean that everything the media was saying was true. I suspect that there had been pressure to do some backtracking and Taskila’s original burst of candor was reeled in. It seems odd for an organization to begin a press conference by acknowledging the truth of its own findings, after all. But the fact remains that Taskila was honestly trying to admit fault in some fashion on behalf of the SRK, and I find that a refreshing change, however limited the admission may be.

I then asked Taskila how a member of the public could find out what was in the report, to know what exactly was being acknowledged as true. He said there were names of people and information about incidents that had been “confessed” or “cared for” (my recollection of his exact language is uncertain) in the report, and so the SRK had chosen not to make it public. The report did say that all of the incidents were in private homes and not at any official church events. Taskila added that there have been cases (or perhaps a case, singular) where the perpetrator asked forgiveness repeatedly and no report was made to authorities. This was a problem of individual congregations.

According to Dr. Hurtig, the SRK’s leaders defend themselves and claim that the issue was a surprise for them. That’s not far from what Taskila said to me himself: The SRK was so shocked at first by the pedophilia allegations that it was in denial about them. I was impressed by his candor in saying that, as well as his next statement that “we” were at fault for not recognizing the scope of the problem at first.

Given the doctrinal sensitivity about any acknowledgment of error on the part of the “mother” organization as a whole, I wasn’t sure if the “we” to which Taskila referred meant the SRK or just the SRK board. But I replied by saying I found it refreshing that the SRK would admit fault. I added that I had witnessed the caretaking meetings in the U.S. and know what a failure to admit mistakes can lead to (4.6.4). Those meetings went on for a long time because the church would not admit to any error. While he didn’t come out and say that, yes, the church can err, he was quite agreeable to my point. Perhaps he was already aware of or considering plans for the official apology that the SRK would finally wind up making about those days, discussed next in 4.10.2.


Though she has come across as somewhat indifferent in public statements since the news story broke, Hurtig made clear to me how upset she really is at her treatment by the SRK. Now she’s ready to say so publicly. “In sermons, we that speak [in public] are rebuked, labeled with strong spiritual labels, grievous wolf among Zion, false prophet, spring storm, an angel of Satan, etc.” In May 2011, she found herself in yet another meeting with the SRK board. The SRK elders had just seen their movement linked with pedophilia in news stories reprinted around the world, and tempers flared. She was yelled at across the table, and took it all pretty hard.

When I spoke with Taskila two months later, I told him about how upset Hurtig was at her treatment by the SRK. He was quite conciliatory, saying she has done important work. People were upset with her, he said, because of how the matter has gone to the media. He didn’t come out and say she was at fault for doing so, seeming pretty neutral about that.

Hurtig appreciated Taskila’s comments, and speaks highly of him personally. But at this point, she offers a pretty unflattering summary of the situation. The leaders in power aren’t accustomed to such direct action from inside the movement, she says, especially by a woman.4 They don’t appreciate her attempts to advise them, her open criticism of the organizational culture, and her speaking out publicly about the community. And what she speaks about is “a shameful phenomenon that happens in a community that considers itself representing family values, decency, and respect for the law.” She says, “I defy their great power as I act in the issue without asking their permission or opinion,” having “shown in public many negative things about them: stalling, ignoring, and inconsistent public communications.” They “have to admit their faults,” and thus “a shadow is cast on the inerrant congregation,” a doctrinal stance that had been maintained (not without dissent) since at least the stormy 1970s (4.2.6, 4.4.4).

What Dr. Hurtig wants unmistakably clear about her story is that the “essential point in the process was not to make public the cases or how many there were, but to create discussion about the movement’s readiness to deal with child protection.” She wanted to start thinking, with the leaders, about which issues could turn out risky or result in abuse being hidden, which we now see has happened in too many cases:

The victims have suffered from abuse for years without getting help. And when they have sought it, they have been silenced on the grounds of the Gospel. That tells us that teaching, policies, and group culture have to be researched so that the positions of the problems faced and experienced by victims can be located. [Hurtig 2011]

Now dozens of victims in Conservative Laestadianism have taken part in her study by telling their experiences to her. Thus her research is helping the community to target the necessary changes. She has called for the movement’s leaders to discuss the problems with her, but says they haven’t co-operated. Any critical viewpoint about the church community has been considered a threat, she concludes, even when dealing with such a serious problem as the safety and rights of children and obeying the law.

LLC Editorial

In the June 2011 issue of the Voice of Zion, the LLC published an editorial about the issue. It began with a lengthy preamble about “the depth of human corruption” and our “hyper-sexualized world”:

Popular culture, advertising, fashion, literature, everyday language and humor, news reports, and even academia, with its uninhibited course offerings, constantly bombard weak human beings with sexual imagery and notions that repeatedly stimulate the basest of fleshly impulses. Add to all that, the Internet, with its anything-goes forms of expression, including all sorts of easy-access pornography, and it is not hard to believe that the occurrence of child sexual abuse has also increased.

Not so long ago the problem “was not dealt with so openly in society. Unfortunately, victims were often misunderstood, not believed, or even discredited or punished for bringing up shameful, family- or community-threatening “secrets.” But progress has been made, the editorial said, and believers “have learned more about recognizing and dealing with the problem” along with the rest of society.

Finally, the church’s involvement was gingerly introduced: “It can only be humbly acknowledged that believers, too, have been both perpetrators and victims.” But the humility is not for the institution, only the individual believers who, like all human beings, “carry the inheritance of the Fall.” And the world is never far from blame, for it is providing potential perpetrators with a “bombardment of titillating imagery and suggestion.” Then we get to the heart of the matter:

Recently cited cases of the sexual abuse of children among Finland’s Laestadians, occurring over the last three decades, have been singled out for extensive media attention. Coverage has appeared in print, on television and radio programs, and on websites–news, blogs, chat pages, etc. Some of the focus has alleged that those entrusted with positions of leadership at the Central Organization of Finland’s Associations of Peace (SRK) have mishandled or turned a blind eye to cases among the Conservative Laestadian membership.

The editorial added that some “news pieces or statements have even opined that there is something in the beliefs or culture of Laestadians that excuses or enables this behavior or shields the perpetrator” (emphasis added). Yes, they have, and with good reason: one of Conservative Laestadianism’s core doctrines is that a sinner can go to another believer to have his sins forgiven as often as he falls into them. There are lots of nuances to this, and those are discussed under the next subheading below, Doctrinal Issues.

“The SRK engaged an attorney to conduct an internal inquiry into the matter,” the editorial continues, leaving the impression that an objective third party got involved. However, the selected attorney is both an SRK member and a preacher. I guess that’s what “internal” means. Anyhow, when

the inquiry was completed, SRK called a news conference to present the inquiry’s findings. The investigating attorney and SRK representatives, including several trusted brothers well known also to North American believers, attended the conference with journalists and other staff from approximately ten media outlets. The general societal problem of child sexual abuse was noted.

Well, actually, before anything was noted, Taskila made his opening remark, “Everything that we have been accused of is true.” Perhaps that is what the editorial refers to as the “introductory statement about the inquiry,” which “included acknowledgment that indeed sexual abuse of children has also occurred in Laestadian circles.” But that’s not the same thing. What seemed to hold such promise in Taskila’s remark was that the organization–the inerrant Mother, the pillar and ground of truth–was finally telling those kneeling before it to get up and dust themselves off, like the angel in Revelation told John: “See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God” (Rev 22:9).

At least the editorial notes that “SRK expressed regret over failures to address the problem or adequately support victims, acknowledging that in its ‘statements and communication, there has not been enough attention paid to the position of the victim, and victims have too often been forgotten.’” Good! I’ll even take the third-person “mistakes were made” tone, as long as it gets said.

But “God’s kingdom is unified on this matter. We do not deny or cover up falls of this nature,” despite what has been reported above about the SRK’s response. And “the incidents have not occurred in the sphere of congregational activity.” The summary of the press conference minimizes the involvement of “living Christianity” by comparing the numbers of incidences in its “sphere” with cases overall, and by comparing the 10-15 alleged perpetrators who were preachers with the SRK’s total number of preachers, which exceeds 950.

Then the editorial quickly whisks the reader back to where it began, peering out at the evil “world where a veritable war on children rages, from abortion to their exploitation, trafficking, neglect, and abuse—not to mention their exposure to poisonous popular culture.” “God’s kingdom remains an overwhelmingly secure place for children,” “supports homes and families in wholesome living, speaks out against, and openly discusses the influences of today’s sexualized society and the need to arm against its dangers.”

The editorial then provides some commentary that reflects the genuine concern that I think does exist in the LLC about the issue. I now quote at some length what seems like useful material for troubled congregations and a watching outside world. It’s important that this commendable content does not get lost amid my critique:

[C]ongregation and central organization boards and pastors are open about the issue of sexual abuse, striving to educate themselves and families on prevention and how to properly deal with any past cases or ones that may occur. This means taking action in cases that come to light to stop any further abuse of the victim or potential victims, ensuring that spiritual and professional help are provided to victims and other suffering family members, and respecting a victim’s privacy to the fullest extent possible. God’s children also pray on behalf of all involved.

The penitent perpetrator also needs to be approached with the mind of Christ. Here, too, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16). The fallen one needs a confessor who hears the confession, preaches the gospel, and supports and escorts the penitent one to make amends with all who have suffered and with the appropriate authorities. As a fruit of faith and having received strength from the gospel, the penitent one wants to follow through with making amends with the victim and others hurt by the abuse. He also is willing to accept society’s punishment and to seek and cooperate with professional counseling.

In no circumstance should a perpetrator attempt to blame the victim or divide near ones, including congregation members, by presenting the abuse as other than wrongdoing. The congregation and its servants must be clear that vigilant protection and support for innocent children and family members, the offender’s forgiveness, and the legal ramifications the abuser faces are separate matters. The congregation is responsible for the former, God’s grace and the gospel of Christ can begin restoration for the penitent, but society and its laws determine the latter.

Based on what friends on the boards of two LLC congregations have told me in years past, it seems that this guidance was followed very appropriately in a couple of prominent cases. Although I’ve heard reports of some disturbing situations on which I will not elaborate here, I do not know of anything comparable to what Hurtig has reported about in the SRK.

When I spoke with Taskila, I told him of my disappointment with the LLC editorial after having been somewhat encouraged by the SRK press conference. It seemed, I said, that the LLC was denying that the church was ever at fault and placing all the blame on media exaggerations. I don’t recall any clear response to my point, but he did point out that “we” are learning about how to deal with these issues. Overall, it was an amiable discussion with an agreeable person about a topic that is disagreeable on many levels for all concerned.

Doctrinal Issues

As I mentioned above, one of Conservative Laestadianism’s core doctrines is that a sinner can go to another believer to have his sins forgiven as often as he falls into them. Each time the absolution is preached, both the sinner and the one proclaiming absolution are expected to go on with life as if the sin had never been committed. When the sin is also a crime, things aren’t quite so simple.

It is true that the need to “take care of the matter as far as it has gone” is also spoken of, including accepting any punishments meted out by society for the matter. The fact that the penitent thief on the cross still had to bear his punishment, despite being promised a place in paradise by the Son of God (Lk 23:43), has not escaped notice. The classic children’s stories about stolen candy have the child go to his mother to have his sins forgiven, but the next stop is to the store to apologize and pay for what was taken.

When spiritual innocence can be obtained merely by believing the proclamation that “all sins are forgiven,” though, a penitent one’s feelings of relief and freedom can carry over into the secular realm. If God has forgotten about the sin (Heb 8:12 & 10:17), why shouldn’t everyone else? The line between spiritual and legal innocence can be blurred all too easily, in the minds of perpetrator, victim, and religious community alike.

The expectation that the victim no longer should view the perpetrator as being guilty of the forgiven sin can be insidious, invalidating the victim’s experience and making him or her feel guilty about natural feelings of resentment and the need for justice. It’s especially true when, perhaps with good intentions and various biblical passages in mind, the perpetrator goes to the victim for absolution. There is no choice but to proclaim that all is forgiven “in the name and blood of Jesus.”

Then there is the matter of the confessional seal. According to the LLC editorial, the SRK

also explained that confession and the gospel of the forgiveness of sins preached in God’s kingdom is not a cloak for sin and that, while a penitent one is assured that confessed sins are forgiven alone through Christ’s redemption and merit, the confessor exhorts—and, if necessary, even accompanies—the confessed abuser to report the matter to the authorities.

What confessors have not always felt the need or even the ability to do, however, is to compel the perpetrator to report the matter or do so themselves. The following images show parts of one draft of a sexual misconduct policy reflecting that attitude. Thankfully, the underlined wording never made it into any final, official document that I know of.

According to the Conservative ordained pastor Johannes Alaranta, there was a problem distinguishing between confessions heard by ordained pastors and those heard by lay preachers. He told me, “The confidentiality of confession of ordained pastors is absolute according to the Church Act. There is no situation where a pastor could tell the name of a person who has been to confession. There are some crimes where the pastor should tell to the authorities the crime. But never the name of the penitent.” In the media, however, Aimo Hautamäki and Olavi Voittonen

said again and again that this confidentiality binds all “Christians.” Many victims said that the confidentiality had made it difficult to stop sexual abusing or to get help. For example the abuser had said to the victim that if she told somebody about abuse, the sin would come onto her because it had been forgiven. [Alaranta 2011]

Alaranta has been an outspoken critic of the SRK leadership, with an active blog. Although I don’t cite him as a named source everywhere in this book, he was willing to be quoted for this statement. Predictably enough, he is no longer asked to speak at SRK services, though he still retains his full duties within Finland’s state church, including delivering sermons there. Other outspoken clergy in the SRK recently have found themselves in the same situation as well.

4.10.2 Rethinking the 1970s

A strong spirit of vehement legalism began to be apparent. Previous unanimous Christian love was swinging into quarreling, shouting and hollering one to another. Regular old fashion Christian services were changing to be so called “caretaking meetings,” into which were summoned and brought Christians which supposedly were faulty with false spirit or doctrine, or some otherwise being faulty in their own personal walk of life. If they were not able to respond in repentance according to their examiners’ requirements, they were excommunicated.

—Walter Torola, Coming of the Lord Draweth Nigh

The 1970s were a time of zealous dogmatism and authoritarianism whose main feature was a witch-hunt atmosphere of rebuke (4.6.4). But it had a widespread impact on the movement’s doctrines, with its influence appearing in a hard-line stance about even thinking that people outside Conservative Laestadianism might be saved (4.2.1); a misplaced emphasis on a nearly divine congregation “Mother” (4.4.4); a pantheon of false spirits (4.4.7); endless, nit-picking rules, including some about instructional television and reading material that are now forgotten or ignored (4.6.1); and a militant approach to confession (4.6.3).

From what I can glean of the history (little of it from Conservative Laestadianism’s own recollections), the blame initially rests at the feet of a few strident voices that started making themselves heard at the end of the 1960s. The judgment Irenaeus renders in his Against Heresies seems eerily applicable to those men who would come 18 centuries later,

who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it,–men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. [Book 4, Ch. 33, §7]

Despite official silence for most of the decades since, the majority of Conservatives over the age of about forty can readily recall the spiritual abuse and overreaching of the period. The people traumatized by the hundreds of “caretaking meetings” certainly will never forget what happened to them. And in Finland where Conservative Laestadianism is well known as are the events of the 1970s, there are enough disgruntled voices to keep the matter fresh in mind even now.

When forced to discuss the matter, the SRK and LLC have offered two conflicting characterizations of the caretaking meetings and other excesses. One is that they were a “blessing,” hard to understand now but necessary to address the unique issues of a difficult time. The other is that, yes, they were wrongheaded and excessive, but the mistakes were those of individual sinners in the Kingdom, not the organization itself.

This image from the “Omat polut” blog is worth a thousand words of reply to that latter point. It is of announcements from the SRK’s Päivämies newspaper regarding 1978 caretaking meetings in two congregations:

There was never the slightest hint from the organizations themselves that anything abusive or excessive was happening in their congregations. Indeed, the SRK and LLC were actually promoting the caretaking meetings and other excesses at the very highest levels of both organizations. The SRK sent representatives to nearly 500 meetings (Ijäs 2011). As the above image shows, an announcement of one meeting promised that “SRK brothers” will be attending. Both organizations were making uncompromising statements about submission, obedience to the Mother, false spirits, and rebuke in their official publications (4.2.6, 4.4.4, 4.4.7, 4.6.4).

If the inerrant “Mother” was opposed to what was going on, she certainly wasn’t making her voice heard. It’s really another version of the problem of God’s hiddenness (4.4.1) and theodicy (4.9.4), applied to an organization that seems to consider itself divine. As noted by Antti Kaunisto and discussed in 4.4.4, an inerrant Mother who is somehow hidden among fallible believers is of no practical consequence.

Finally, though, an objective look at history from inside the movement forced the SRK’s official viewpoint to shift just a bit. Dr. Ari-Pekka Palola, a historian who is the SRK’s publications manager, released a history of the SRK called “Expanding the Work of the Gospel” at an SRK board meeting on October 8, 2011. He had done a previous work, “Protected by Two Shells,” that dealt with the years 1906-1946, and the new work went up to 1961. The next project would address the 1960s, when things were starting to get awkward, and move into the tumultuous 1970s.

As the October 13, 2011 issue of Päivämies tells it, “The SRK board had a preliminary discussion about the continuation of history work. The continuation demands a retrospect of the events of the 70s. To the board’s way of thinking, it is reasonable to learn a lesson from the past.” The next statement is remarkable, and I have gone so far as to borrow it as a theme for this book: “There must be the ability to encounter facts with openness and honesty, even when the facts are not pleasing to us.” Well said!

To continue the story, I now turn to the Finnish news source Kotimaa24, which graciously granted me permission to publish a translation of its entire article covering the statement and its background (Ijäs 2011). Here it is, lightly edited from what was provided to me by Mikko Alasaarela:

Conservative Laestadians ask Forgiveness for Abuses of Caretaking Meetings

Johannes Ijäs

October 10, 2011

The Board of the SRK, which represents the conservative laestadians in Finland, asks forgiveness for the [revival] movement’s doctrinal errors and misuse of power during so-called caretaking meetings in the 1970s. This is told to Kotimaa24 by SRK’s Executive Chairman Olavi Voittonen.

The SRK’s Executive Board’s statement given this weekend will be published in full in the coming week, appearing in the movement’s Päivämies magazine.

According to Olavi Voittonen, the statement constitutes an apology.

However, Voittonen feels that the movement has already apologized for the doctrinal errors and abuse during the caretaking sessions. This apology took place in 1989, when the movement’s then Secretary General Voitto Savela spoke at an Elders’ Meeting during summer services at Ranua. Savela’s speech was published in SRK’s yearbook. According to Voittonen, the recent apology, however, is expressed more clearly and more forcefully than it was then, over twenty years ago.

In their statement, “doctrinal errors” refers to the internal undercurrents, which were called different spirits. According to Voittonen, these spirits caused actions that were not considered appropriate within the movement. These spirits were called, among others, the “dry,” “gentle” [perhaps equivalent to lenient] and “kososlainen” spirit. According to Voittonen, the problem with these caretaking meetings, among others, was the fact that it was not enough to talk about an actual sin, but that the people that were taken care of each had to “dig a wrong spirit out of himself.” This was an abusive practice, according to Voittonen.

Voittonen also points out as abuse the public and enforced confession of sins during caretaking meetings. Voittonen acknowledges that the caretaking meetings included spiritual abuse. However, he also points out that the vast majority of participants had a positive experience.

Caretaking Meetings “Went Beyond a Certain Point”

The reason why the movement is now asking for forgiveness for the caretaking meetings, according to Voittonen, is primarily the fact that the movement is in progress of writing its history, which will next move to the third part, covering the years 1962-2006. Voittonen says that society’s values revolution that began in the early 1960s was the historical basis for the caretaking meetings in the late 1970s. The second part of the history covering years 1946-1961, written by Ari-Pekka Palola, has just been completed.

For the discussion this weekend, SRK had at its disposal a research report on the caretaking meetings. It was prepared from SRK’s Executive Board and Executive Committee minutes from that period. There were 488 public caretaking meetings at local congregations where official SRK representatives attended.

Olavi Voittonen himself defines the caretaking meetings as “pastoral conversation, which examined doctrinal or ethical issues and deviations regarding the faith.”

The history of the Church shows that such meetings have been held for ages, but then when the discussions went beyond a certain point, they took on some wrong features, Voittonen says.

Are the Caretaking Meetings Still Taking Place?

Three bishops of the Lutheran Church of Finland met SRK’s representatives in August. From time to time, the bishops engage in discussions with various revivalist movements about current topics. The caretaking meetings were also discussed in the [August] meeting. Voittonen would not elaborate on the detailed questions, such as whether the bishops hoped for an official apology. He said that they agreed to share information on the discussions only on a general level.

Aini Linjakumpu, a researcher at University of Lapland who is working on a publication about the caretaking meetings, said in the summer that caretaking meetings still are being held within Conservative Laestadianism. For example, there is a desire to guard the members from critical views about the movement. Voittonen does not agree that Linjakumpu’s outing would have had any influence on the public apology, but rather precisely the fact that the movement will now start writing the history of the period of the caretaking meetings.

Voittonen thinks the caretaking meetings declined in number and eventually ended in the early 1980s, but says the pastoral care “cannot end in the church of God.” According to Voittonen, the movement cannot completely avoid the fact that some people will experience such pastoral care negatively also in the future.

SRK has prepared a press release about the caretaking meetings, which is due to be published on Wednesday, October 12. SRK’s Secretary General Tuomas Hänninen handed the press release to Kotimaa already today at the request of Olavi Voittonen.

Press Release October 12, 2011

SRK Continues the Writing of History

The second part of the SRK's history, written by Ari-Pekka Palola and called “Expanding the Work of the Gospel,” was published on October 8, 2011 at Siikatörmä. This current publication covers the history until 1961. The previous publication, “Protected by Two Shells,” discussed the history of SRK’s organization from 1906 to 1946.

After the publication, SRK’s Executive Board held a preliminary discussion on the continuance of the history work, and concluded that continuing the work requires critical and open scrutiny of the events of the 1970s.

We Should Learn From Our Past

The Executive Board noted that we should learn from the past. We must be able to face the facts openly and honestly, even when they are not pleasing to us. This also applies to the so-called caretaking meetings, which were the result of the values revolution in society that took place in the 1960s and affected the faith community in a wide variety of ways. Beer was released to the grocery stores in 1969, television became a new phenomenon in rural areas, and in the early 1970s the municipalities began offering free counseling on contraception. The movement’s positions towards TV, birth control, and beer drinking had to be thought through together.

The talks resulted in much-needed pastoral care. Unfortunately, since the mid-decade, the so-called caretaking meetings started including foreign elements, such as doctrinal errors and spiritual abuse that resulted from those.

The Executive Board regrets these doctrinal errors and abuses that have occurred, and says: “Any community consists of individuals, including a faith community. When individual Christians are wrong, the Church itself is not at fault.”

People also experienced the caretaking meetings as blessings when the living gospel was able to release constricting internal bonds. What God has cleansed has produced good fruit.

Despite all the fanfare and the Päivämies article’s acknowledgment that “it is reasonable to learn a lesson from the past,” that it “is unfortunate and, in retrospect inconceivable that these errors were able to expand almost everywhere in our Christianity” (SRK 2011), we can still see the two standard responses in the press release: “The Church itself is not at fault,” and there were blessings, the SRK insists in the end, with “good fruit” from what “God has cleansed.” The ecclesiastical disclaimer goes on a bit longer in the Päivämies article directed at the SRK’s membership:

A community consists of individuals, and so does a faith community. We believe that the Holy Spirit gathers God’s congregation. When an individual person errs, the fault is not of the congregation. And so correction of the matters begins from the will of the individual wayfarer [lit. “striving one”] to travel with a good conscience before God and man. Even during the caretaking meetings, moments of blessing were always [aina, perhaps better read as “constantly”] experienced when the living gospel could release constricting internal bonds [of sin, katkoa puristavat sisäiset siteet]. What God purged, has produced good fruits. [SRK 2011]

Ultimately, the Church never allows itself to be blamed, no matter what. Not for the absurdities and contradictions we have seen throughout this book, not for the actions and inactions that Dr. Hurtig complains of in the previous section. Not even for what the SRK itself says were “the doctrinal fallacies and misconduct that took place” in the 1970s, for which “we” are sorry. It’s hard to tell what is meant by the word “we,” given that the organization says it cannot err and thus never can have anything to be genuinely sorry about.

Then, in the next breath, it is claimed that some good came of it after all. And for that, God, whose “Mother” congregation sat unseen and unheard as individuals went on a spree of error, is unhesitatingly given credit.

1 This quote about Hurtig’s story is from a letter she sent to me in October 2011, based on a translation of the letter by Antti Kaunisto, as are other quotes not otherwise attributed in this section. I have been in touch with Dr. Hurtig for about a year, but she was reluctant to talk publicly about the SRK’s reaction to her work for some time after it appeared in the Finnish media. Now, however, she says she is ready to tell the full story about her treatment by the SRK.

2 “Otan johtoon yhteyttä uudestaan. Toukokuussa 2009 tapaamme uudestaan. Lähetän kirjeen, jossa kerron pettymykseni siihen, että asialle ei ole tehty mitään. Lähetän toimenpidesuunnitelman, mitä leireillä pitäisi ottaa huomioon, mitä rauhanyhdistyksissä, mistä puhua perheissä ja perheille. Sovimme palaverin, puhun siellä hyvin suoraan. Kritisoin Hännisen alustusta, vääriä asenteita.

“Kerron pettyneeni heidän hitauteensa asiaan tarttumisessa. Olen silti kokouksessa kaiken aikaa asiallinen, en huuda, en ole vihainen, olen ammattilainen, toimin siten että ajattelen, että sen tilanteen olisi voinut vaikka televisiossa esittää.

“Johto moitti minua kovin sanoin. Sanon, että olen kasvanut lihava lammas, ammattitaidoton, väärässä hengessä, en nauti heidän luottamustaan jne.”

3 His exact words were, “Kaikki mistä meitä on syytetty, on totta.” An audio recording of the statement is played in YLE.fi’s video clip at areena.yle.fi/video/1302199271360.

4 My rule of thumb for women in the church: If you are intelligent, articulate, and female, you’re in for trouble. Have just two of those characteristics–any two–and you’ll probably be OK.